“It is not impossible to defeat Ravana,” declaims a resilient mother in Maatr, a thriller about a revengeful mother that releases this Friday. To take on the demon king, “You only have to reawaken your inner Ram.” The mother who says this, as she undergoes rigorous training (and plotting) to serve Kill Bill-style justice to her daughter’s rapists, is none other than the comeback star Raveena Tandon. The seeds of Maatr, Tandon’s latest film after a much-hyped cameo in the dud Bombay Velvet, can be traced to the Nirbhaya gang rape case of 2012. Herself a mother of three daughters, Tandon was just as shocked and numbed about the Delhi gang rape as the entire nation, but as a mother her concerns about women’s safety was more than just about the culture of rape and abuse.
In an interview with Scroll.in earlier this month, she sounded equally disturbed at the male attitude in general, especially politicians who make outrageous statements like “boys will be boys” and get away with it. She was referring to SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav’s callous commentary at a rally in 2014, in response to anti-rape laws. Tandon is in favour of stringent laws against rape and like most Indians, firmly believes that laws are easily flouted in this country because people are not scared of them. In Maatr, she told Scroll.in, it’s the message that counts.
“So even if a film like Maatr is not a huge commercial success, the message it carries needs to be heard.” Though for Tandon the box-office may not matter as much as the social message, especially in the case of a well-intentioned film like Maatr, you can’t discount its commercial consequences. It’s up against another female-centric story this Friday – clashing with Sonakshi Sinha’s Noor, a much lighter film featuring a much younger star.
Sonakshi Sinha is 29, representative of the change of guard in Bollywood. Tandon is 42, an old guard in some sense. To know how far Raveena Tandon has come from her roots (and her peak) in the 1990s Bollywood, all you need to do is refer to her “inner Ram” dialogue from Maatr. If the same film was made in the 90s, the heydays of Tandon, the line would have her channel her “inner Sita.”
By all accounts, Maatr is not unchartered territory for the seasoned actress. She’s been there before. She has been experimental and has taken on complex roles in the past. One of her most hard-hitting roles saw her as a low-caste girl (she compared her character to goddess Durga) who’s a victim of domestic abuse and marital rape. Daman, the 2001 film in question, won her a much-deserved National Film Award for best actress. The theme of a battered protagonist fighting for justice is also not something new in her filmography. Audiences may recall Mridula (Tandon) in Pehchaan, 2005, in which her college friend is suspected of being murdered by her family. Mridula goes after the family to get justice for her late friend. Fewer still may remember the flop Jaago, co-starring Sanjay Kapoor and Manoj Bajpayee, in which Tandon’s young daughter is raped in a local train. The revengeful mother kills one of the rapists and is subsequently arrested.
Alongside Karisma Kapoor, Kajol, Aishwarya Rai, Manisha Koirala, Tabu and Juhi Chawla, Tandon was one of the top draws of the 90s. Like Karisma Kapoor, she made for a successful pair with Govinda and the two ended up giving us a comic portfolio which began with the hilariously cheesy Dulhe Raja and culminated in Akhiyon Se Goli Maare, a 2002 comedy named after a hit song from Dulhe Raja. In Hindi cinema, you can judge a star’s popularity by the number of chartbusters he/she has belted out. Going purely by songs, Tandon is either evergreen or ever-corny. Her output makes you either nostalgic or creeps you out, depending on your taste in cinema. Her hits range from the sexy Sridevi-inspired Tip Tip Barsa Paani to Kisi Disco Mein Jaaye. They continue to dominate the airwaves even today. In Andaz Apna Apna, a cult comedy that Hindi audiences still trip on, she joined a sterling cast of Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Karisma Kapoor, Paresh Rawal and Shakti Kapoor in a case of mistaken identities. It’s worth pointing out that her on-screen romance with Akshay Kumar (and the famous love affair off screen) in early 90s yielded a string of hits including Mohra.
But it was not all glamorous, commercial stuff for Tandon. Her filmography got diverse after she became interested in socially conscious cinema in the late 90s. Films like Shool, Satta and Aks proved that she could emote just as well as she could ‘shoot bullet with her eyes.’ Onir’s Shab, which was originally written keeping Tandon in mind and was slated to be her comeback vehicle, reportedly contains one of her better performances. At least, if the director is to be believed. Unfortunately, the film remains unreleased and the much-acclaimed performance, unseen.
Known as the Mast Mast girl, thanks to the popular Viju Shah number Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast from Mohra, Raveena Tandon was not alone in turning to more serious films towards the end of her career. After a long spell in commercial cinema which bestows popularity, fame and money upon its practitioners, all actors desire critical acclaim at some point in their life. While Karisma Kapoor found Shyam Benegal and Aishwarya Rai, Rituparno Ghosh and Mani Ratnam, Raveena Tandon was not that lucky.
Was even she interested? Tandon might have been born in a film family – her dad was filmmaker Ravi Tandon – but in spite of that she was never ambitious about cinema. That should explain why she quit films, got married, enjoyed motherhood and returned to the marquee intermittently only when a good film offer came by. Like Maatr.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.)